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26/12/2014

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What can zombies tell us about social policy planning?

What can zombies tell us about social policy planning?

By Dr Jennifer Badham, Research Fellow, Centre for Research in Social Simulation at University of Surrey

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Imagine this scenario… The US has been overrun with zombies and you are in charge of planning the UK response to deal with any local invasion. Your first thought – see how others deal with the problem – is not particularly practical. A field trip to the US would be suicidal, we can’t simply adopt the US approach of roving bands of well-armed civilians (Night of the Living Dead, Walking Dead) because of the more limited access to weapons, and that approach has already clearly failed. What can you do instead?

With a real crisis, there could be many actions taken such as closing down long distance transport, funding vaccine research, and fitness programmes to help people run away quicker. As the planner, you would need to think through the consequences of different options to decide which to adopt, and models could help you do it.

Models capture our understanding of how a system works, of what happens to one part when we make a change in some other part. This is what makes them useful for planning, because they can include more parts and connections than we can simultaneously hold in our brains. Models also provide a focus for discussion, so that each person can contribute their knowledge about one part to an overall shared understanding of the whole system.

Using a model solves some problems, but introduces others. There is more art than science in deciding what to include in a model and what to leave out. There are also many types of models including diagrams, mathematical equations, computer simulations and board games.

Each model tells a story, but different storytellers will focus on different parts of the story; the plot, the characters, the conflicts, the moral, the scenery. In the same way, each model emphasises those parts of a system that the modeller thinks are most important. Model types also naturally highlight different aspects. The different emphases have implications for the conclusions that can be drawn from a model.

I will work through several simple models about zombies at the British Science Festival (on 11 September 2014) that each uses a different modelling technique and, to some extent, would lead to different responses to the hypothetical zombie problem. One of these models (developed with Judy-Anne Osborn) focuses on the role of personal fighting skill, so uses a modelling technique called agent-based modelling that allows simulated individuals to be different from each other. Depending on the size of the starting zombie population, one outcome is the survival of a small number of highly skilled humans. This and many other zombie models are soon to be published in a book.

I will also talk about the TELL ME model, which is being developed for a real policy issue; when and how to communicate to the public about protective behaviour during an influenza epidemic. The TELL ME model is probably more what the Sociology & Social Policy Section of the British Science Association had in mind when thinking about modelling, but would you have read this far if the blog piece wasn’t about zombies?

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Join Jennifer on Thursday 11 September at the University of Birmingham, when she speaks about zombie models at the event, Making decisions with zombies, at the British Science Festival.

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